Profanity: Why God Cares About the Words You Use
There are over a million words in the English language. Why are some of them off-limits to a Christian? The words we use matter. Here’s why.
The ability to use words is a superpower.
You might not think of it that way, especially since nearly everyone can use words. They show up in writing, in speaking, in sign language and in everything from musicals to billboards. They are everywhere.
But imagine—just for a minute—a world without words. Imagine what it would be like to live every day in a world where words didn’t exist. Imagine trying to communicate with anyone about anything. What would happen to your relationships without words? How would you share your deepest feelings or tell your funniest jokes? How could you hope to understand others—or be understood yourself?
You couldn’t. Not in any meaningful way, at least. You’d be trapped in your own little world, and so would everyone else.
And that, right there, is exactly what makes words so special: with words, we can connect worlds.
A case for cussing
From time to time, you will run across arguments making the case for profanity. According to these arguments, vulgar words play an invaluable—even essential—role in communication.
Maybe you’ve heard those arguments too. They can be extremely convincing, and I’ll admit there have been times when I’ve stopped to wonder if maybe some of those points have some merit.
Words, after all, aren’t objective truths. They’re collections of letters and sounds we’ve assembled over the years to identify and catalogue objects and concepts. What Spanish speakers call a gallo, we English speakers call a rooster, for example. It’s not that one group is right or wrong—we just use different phonetics to refer to the same thing.
Profanity operates on the same principle. If someone starts cussing in, say, Russian, I’m probably not going to be offended because I’m probably not going to have any idea what they are saying. But if the same person lets loose the same string of expletives in English, I’m going to get extremely uncomfortable. Why?
Because, societally, words only have the power we give them.
Choosing a lens
Think about it: A word is offensive when we, culturally, decide that it is. In the 17th century, occupy was a terribly vulgar word in Middle English. Today, it isn’t. Other words have experienced the opposite effect, transitioning from completely acceptable to extremely offensive. The only real factor determining whether a given string of syllables is vulgar or kosher is the way society looks at it.
There are two directions we can run with this piece of information. The first is to say, “Okay, words are only what we make them, therefore no words are inherently off-limits.” From there, it’s easy to make a case for vulgarity as a means of catching people off guard, shocking them, grabbing their attention, galvanizing them and even stirring them to action. If words are superpowers, then a well-timed expletive is really just a way to enhance those powers.
The other approach requires us to take a look at profanity through the lens of Scripture—and when we do that, we end up with a totally different conclusion. If words are superpowers, then the Bible tells us that profanity should be viewed as kryptonite.
Words are the bridges we build to connect worlds—and the Bible tells us that the quality of those bridges matters. Words that aren’t fitting
It’s true that words only have the meaning we give them, but it doesn’t change the fact that words have meaning. A particular word might only be offensive because of the connotation society gives it, but that doesn’t make the word any less offensive.
Words are the bridges we build to connect worlds—and the Bible tells us that the quality of those bridges matters.
Here’s what God inspired the apostle Paul to write regarding language: “You yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth” (Colossians 3:8). In the same epistle, he added, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt” (4:6).
In another epistle, Paul reminded the Church, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. … Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. … But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks” (Ephesians 4:29, 31; 5:3-4).
Filthy language. Corrupt words. Evil speaking. Foolish talking. Coarse jesting. The Bible is clear: there are some things that just aren’t fitting for a Christian to say. The reason has little to do with how the words themselves became filthy—and everything to do with our hearts.
Words reflect the heart
Jesus warned, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:34-37).
If we make a point of using crass, vulgar words—whether for shock value or simply to add emphasis—we are sending a message that we don’t mind lowering our standards and compromising our values to make a point.
Some may argue that profanity can add punch and emphasis to a sentence in a way nothing else can. But this isn’t just about the potential effectiveness of our communication; it’s about our character too.
Being a Christian requires acknowledging that God has placed some things off-limits—things that degrade us, hurt us or make us less than we should be. Vulgar language is one of those things. If our words reflect the heart, then crass words reflect a crass heart and corrupt words reflect a corrupt heart. If our goal is to develop godly character—to pursue righteousness and purity—how can we justify using words whose only real function is to insult and offend?
Your words are your superpower. You have the opportunity to provide others with “what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” Or you can settle for filthiness, foolish talking and coarse jesting, “which are not fitting.”
What worlds are you connecting?
To start exploring the best way to use your words, read our article “Words That Hurt, Words That Help.”